The Lean Developer
Pixels & Profits: Chapter 12
Budgeting: Time, Money, and Attention
At this point in our journey together, you’re well aware that identifying your smallest viable audience, and learning how to engage with them, is where your focus should be from start to finish. Hands-down.
That process can take a significant amount of time and energy — all while generating very little revenue — and it’s easy to get impatient, confused, discouraged, etc.
But the process can be made so much less stressful by understanding cash flow, building a marketing budget, and allocating it wisely..
Before we get into the specifics of budgeting for your game, let’s be clear… we’re going to talk about budgeting money, but everything I say will also apply to how you budget your time and attention.
Of the three (time, money, and attention) I’d argue that, at least in the beginning, money is the least important.
I can hear the internet spitting out its coffee, shouting:
“But how can I launch a successful game without funding?!?!”
Well, the truth is, without shifting how you look at the situation, you can’t — so, let’s get this shift started!
Entrepreneurship in Game Development
It’s so obvious that it’s almost cliché to say but, indie game marketing often revolves around a lean budget. This doesn’t have to be the case though. After all, we’re not just artists, programmers, engineers, etc. — we are entrepreneurs, too.
As entrepreneurs, it’s our job to build revenue-generating systems, while solving the needs of our tribe.
To do this well (and for a long time), it’s critical that we build these systems with growth-driven principles, and financial sustainability in mind.
Before we get there, I want to say this plainly:
You do NOT need a loan, investors, or even a publisher.
Yes, those things can help, I agree with you 100%.
And yet, I know getting any of those things too soon can be far more dangerous than most realize.
Because an influx of cash can mask problems, sometimes hiding them for years…
The Case Against Premature Funding
Let’s look at what happened to Dead Space 2, the 2011 sequel to the widely popular Dead Space, the popularity of which has been revived by the 2023 remake.
As Den of Geek reported, sales figures showed over 4 million game units sold, which is no small feat. But it cost $60 million to create, with EA and Microsoft also requiring a cut of the profits.
The article linked above specifically cites tremendous marketing overspend.
That is what it looks like when you throw money (not strategy) at a problem.
You’d think the marketing team for Dead Space 3 (2013) would’ve learned from the previous misstep, but you’d be wrong. The process was repeated: rampant overspending on promotion, low sales figures.
By 2017, Visceral Games no longer existed.
EA closed the studio.
There are an amazing number of similar stories where overhyped games fail despite a near-infinite marketing budget.
Meaning the point to take in here is this:
The amount in your budget is not what matters.
Stop focusing on that.
Instead, let’s talk about how to run lean (regardless of budget), and spend only where absolutely critical.
I could waste time trying to find an impressive analogy of how your marketing budget is like a mechanic or a level from a game. But it’s actually much simpler to link the idea of your marketing budget to cash and economics, in general, in games.
Go figure, right?
Imagine the common game mechanic where the player is able to buy up properties or shops, and then begin generating more cash from those properties, allowing them to purchase more on the map.
The player is investing cash now to receive an increase in extra cash over time.
Those efforts create an increase in positive cash flow, and they stack.
Allocating your marketing budget is the same concept. You’re investing money for the potential of reward later down the line.
The trick is figuring out how to kickstart the initial cash flow — which is where the average person will default to seeking loans or investors.
Some will use their personal savings instead.
All three options are extremely risky.
Because the MVP process requires that the idea prove itself in the marketplace first.
Which is why I keep repeating myself about identifying and understanding your audience…
Before you think about funding a project, you want to make sure your audience is interested enough to pay for the result.
In our world, “growth-driven design” is the name for that process of:
- Finding an audience we can serve
- Building an MVP to meet their needs
- Iterating until we gain traction
Other industries call it rapid prototyping. By either name, we talk more about the concept here.
For now, regarding budget, here are a few principles to guide your thinking:
One of the biggest bottlenecks in the marketing process is asset creation. Do yourself a favor and start capturing everything, right now. By this I mean screen recordings, screenshots, in-progress videos, tests – document everything related to your game.
Start doing this now, not later.
It doesn’t matter if most of it never gets used, the parts you do end up using will end up priceless.
These assets can be used for promotional content, sneak peeks, developer diaries, and so much more… but only if you capture and store the content.
The effort costs you practically nothing.
Keep these assets secure in your vault of data, and draw from them as your marketing needs require.
Differentiate Between Cost Types
When crafting your budget for the first time, start by separating your between recurring and one-time costs. This will help give you a clearer understanding of your business’s cash flow. Do everything in your power to keep a positive cash flow — meaning you have more income than you do expenses.
Stay Intentionally Lean
Not all marketing strategies require substantial funding. In fact, the approaches I’ve outlined in this series have all been free of financial investment. They only cost time.
Your goal is to Identify low-cost, high-impact tactics which support your overall strategy — then to prioritize them, validate their effectiveness, and iterate off of them.
Word-of-mouth, community involvement, reviews, Kickstarters, Twitch streamers, and YouTube Lets Players, etc. are great avenues to use while riffing on that process.
Stay Intentionally Lean
When evaluating the potential return on investment for marketing tactics, it is critical to consider best, and worst cast returns. Do yourself a favor and assume the worst case will happen most of the time.
Honestly, that’s probably not the case but, I find it easier to enjoy a pleasant surprise than an unpleasant one. So, without being pessimistic, I assume all marketing experiments will fail — until they don’t.
High ROI tactics can be worth the investment and more, if they work, but…
They may also be high-risk.
Professional gamblers will tell you not to play with money you can’t afford to lose.
I’m telling you the same.
When it comes to our craft, professional marketers do. not. gamble.
We take whatever budget we have, and we plot a course that looks something like this:
Identify low-cost, high-yield opportunities and test those first.
Based on results, allocate additional resources to top performers, cull everything else, and test again.
If you handed me $1,000 to run that process for online ads, the first series of tests would use less than 10% of the budget, split between no more than 4 experiments.
The decision to spend more, and in what ratio, depends on what your results show.
A huge portion of the marketing craft revolves around running experiments where we test for the best performing tactic. Big agencies like to hide this fact, but in truth, that means all marketing (including advertising) is actually educated guesswork.
All of it.
And there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s how the scientific method works.
We make our best guess first, then test the hell out of it, then learn from the results.
Here’s the thing though…
Some experiments are significantly more dangerous than others.
If you take out a big loan to make a game, and fail to do what we’ve talked about in this series, you’re gambling.
And that means, if the risk is too high, you might lose everything.
So it is critical that you evaluate risk against ROI for each decision.
I won’t be able to advise you beyond that in this format, there are too many variables, but I can say this much…
If you feel stuck, and unsure of which direction to head despite deep analysis of your data… journaling works wonders for me.
That and/or a 20 minute walk outside.
Get some fresh air, and some mental distance, while you let your subconscious process through the challenge in the background.
It works like magic.
Here’s the last one…
Become a Perpetual Student
Even if you outsource your accounting one day, it is in your best interests to learn as much as you can about it. If for no other reason than to spot, and guard yourself against less than ethical accountants.
Make it a point to stay aware of your company’s economic situation at regular intervals.
After all, you’re the captain of the ship, right?
While you’re learning, let the principles above guide you.
Remember, budgeting is a skill and you will get better at it over time.
Don’t expect to always get it right, especially in the beginning.
It is common for there to be mistakes or mismanagement of funds early on in the journey.
You’ll also have to get comfortable with taking risks.
Case Study: Outlast
As a testament to the power of an audience-centric approach to budgeting, consider the case of the indie horror game, Outlast.
The developers struggled to raise the initial 1.36 million CAD required to create the game. Once they had, the team paid themselves a pittance, just to keep from starving. But most of their budget went to developing DLC, a console port, and the sequel Outlast 2.
After over a year of extreme bootstrapping, Red Barrels chose to accept a deal to release a PS4 console port of Outlast for free.
This decision led to millions of downloads and a steady stream of income. They went from 0 to 15 million, as you can read about on GameIndustry.
It is a fantastic read to get you thinking about the reality of budgeting a video game in the early days.
I love this quote from Red Barrels’ Phillipe Morin:
We’re prototyping, and the way I want to approach this is to get a prototype that we’re really happy about, and then figure out the best way to get it done. Are we going to need the same kind of budget? Can it be lower? Right now, I don’t know. All I know is that I always make sure we have options on the table: plan A, B, C and D. When you get to the river, you decide which bridge you want to cross.
— Phillipe Morin, Red Barrels
Note the word prototyping. That is the mindset you want to have in the marketing game.
The article above also mentions Rocket League, another favorite of mine who also implemented a similar, and highly successful “free release” tactic on the Playstation Plus service.
It has clearly worked for both companies.
Still, be careful of mistakenly thinking success is as simple as releasing a game for free — though it can be an incredibly powerful tactic to build an initial player base.
(Which is exactly how both companies utilized the tactic, after they had a validated MVP — their game prototype.)
Prototype != Perfect
Ok, we’re about to wrap up the budgeting chat but, before we close it out, I need to hit you with an ugly truth…
You may need to sacrifice to make the budget work.
That might mean pre-made assets, fewer animations, shorter cutscenes, simpler sprites, models, etc.
You might have to greybox it first to get the critical feedback you need from your audience.
Because scope-creep will eat into costs quicker than Pac-Man chows down on ghosts.
Prototypes are not meant to be perfect.
Strive for perfectionism after you’ve tasted success.
In the beginning, you need to aim for a game that nails a few crucial aspects specific to what your audience is looking for; you can mercilessly disregard the rest.
Done is better than perfect.
Remember the case of Choo Choo Charlie, where the developer, Gavin Eisenbeisz, built only what was necessary to create a trailer.
That means there was no actual game to play.
Without ever encountering Wabbit, he followed our process to the letter, and made an MVP — the absolute bare minimum required to validate his idea.
Knowing which parts of your art to sacrifice for the sake of getting it made is a cruel slice of reality and a very difficult task. Consult those around you if you’re too close, and accept that you must “kill your darlings.”
Now that you have an idea on how to allocate your marketing budget, your finances should be in good hands.
But this is indie game marketing, so chances are you’re working with a slim budget, if you have one at all.
Is the solution to just not market?
Of course not!
The solution is to find ways of marketing that don’t cost all that much to employ.
And that is exactly what we’re going to talk about next.
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